“Change or go.”

How would you react to this threat?

Here are two possible reactions:

  • “What if I fail? Will I be exposed?”
  • “What if I don’t change? Will I be left behind?”

According to former former MIT Professor Edgar Schein, the brain reacts to such messages in two ways. The first reaction is called “learning anxiety”; the second, “survival anxiety”.

Because we are human, we have all experienced these anxieties in different situations and in different forms.

From Making Sense of Change Management, here are 4 fears you might have felt at one time in your career:

  1. Fear of temporary incompetence: “I lack the competence to deal with the new situation.”
  2. Fear of punishment for incompetence: “I’ll be punished when my incompetence is discovered.”
  3. Fear of loss of personal identity: “My skills are no longer required.”
  4. Fear of loss of group membership: “I’m no longer relevant to my group.”

Any one of these can cause extreme anxiety.

An unexpected Change can feel like walking a tightrope. It doesn’t have to.

In this post, I offer 2 principles, 2 questions and 2 actions you can take to grow the positive force for Change and reduce the negative one in your team, group or organization.


For Change to take root, Schein emphasizes 2 principles:

  1. Survival anxiety must get greater than learning anxiety.
  2. Learning anxiety must be reduced (not survival anxiety increased).

In place for over half a century, Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis sees ‘Driving Forces’ as positive forces for Change and ‘Restraining Forces’ as negative.  In other words, he saw survival anxiety as a positive, driving force and learning anxiety as a negative, restraining one.

Lewin believed that whenever the positive forces were stronger than the negative ones, the status quo could change (for ‘Desired State’).


The first question is for anyone wishing to drive Change in their team/group/organization:

1. What can I do to grow the driving force (+), and reduce the restraining one (-)?

Here are a few key elements Schein recommends:

  • Compelling vision of the future
  • Effective feedback systems

The second question is to you:

2. What key elements, actions or interventions can support the learners in your team/group/organization?

A few more elements for you to consider:

  • Formal training/upskilling
  • Practice fields & coaching support


  1. Think of a difficult Change you had to make in your organization and ask yourself these 3 questions:
  • What were my survival anxieties?
  • What were my learning anxieties?
  • What helped me to change?

2. Ask your people the same questions (don’t assume you know their anxieties!).

TIP: DO take the time to explore their relevant questions, concerns, etc. DO NOT take their first answer/s and move on.


People are capable of Change. They should be treated like adults capable of having mature conversations.

As leader and manager, you often need to look below the surface of what is going on to uncover real, possibly hidden thoughts and feelings.

Keep in mind that every individual experiences change differently; everyone is on a different stage of The Change Curve:

Understanding The Curve will help you increase the positive energy for Change and decrease the resistance.

Once aware of where your people are, you can plan and implement effective interventions. On this point, people require effective systems and strategies to respond positively.

In the wise words of Mike and Esther from Making Sense of Change Management:

“Healthy levels of open communication, and a positive regard for individuals and their potential contribution to the organization’s goals, contribute to creating an environment where individuals can grow and develop.”

This environment will foster healthy relationships for a healthy organization that is capable of transformative Change.

If you thought of an additional idea to grow the positive energy for Change, please share it in a comment below with me and everyone else.

  • Fantastic article Tim. It’s so useful to see those fears listed out so clearly and then to have questions to take away and answer. Thank you. Loved this.

  • Such an interesting article! Personally I don’t have learning anxieties but definitely recognise the fear of punishment for incompetence. Food for thought!

  • Super informative as ever Tim… change management brings out so much in a team dynamic, it was interesting to reflect on both my survival and learning anxieties. Thanks for posting this!